1 Corinthians 13

1 Corinthians 13
by Pastor Lawrence Bowlin

In a fallen world, we are often disappointed. Even the Church at times disappoints us when we see evidence of pride, selfishness and immaturity amongst its members. There were many examples of immaturity in the Church at Corinth, with some members using their spiritual gifts to magnify themselves rather than building others up in love. And thus, in the midst of his lengthy discussion on spiritual gifts beginning back in Ch.12 and continuing on through ch.14, Paul shares what may seem to be a digression at first, but what is in reality Paul’s main point underlying his treatment of every spiritual issue in the life of the church and that is the centrality of God’s love in His church. In this chapter, Paul shows the preeminence of love in the life of the Church in three movements. First, in vv.1-3 he shows the absence of love in Corinth. Second, in vv.4-7 he shows the incarnation of love in Christ. And third, in vv.8-13 he shows the consummation of love in Heaven.

Speaking of the absence of love in Corinth Paul uses three conditional sentences to make his point, all of which follow the same pattern, “If, but, then.” For instance in v.1, Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, But have not love, (then) I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Adding to his argument in v.2 Paul speaks of those who take great pride in their knowledge of God’s Word and of the mysteries of God’s revelation. Some even had the gift of faith to perform miracles of various sorts, but yet, they too were lacking in love. Again, Paul says that without love, they are nothing. Then he moves on in v.3 from those who are proud of their public speaking gifts to those who seemingly do the most sacrificial thing known to man. They are willing to give up their very lives for the sake of the gospel and even to have their bodies burned in the flames. Of course, we don’t have any accounts of Christian men purposely setting themselves on fire in Corinth, but there was one ancient account that Paul would have been familiar with of an Indian philosopher named Calanus who became a martyr by burning himself alive before Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. Whether Paul is referring to this man or not, Paul’s point is that a man could give away all his possession and choose a life of poverty or he could sacrifice his life entirely for what he thinks is some higher calling, yet if he doesn’t have love for others, it doesn’t mean a thing.

In vv.4-7 Paul moves from the absence of love in the Church at Corinth to the incarnation of love in Christ. This is the same love that is at work in all those who have received the Spirit of Christ. This is not the spirit of the world, but the work of the Holy Spirit that shows us the very heart and mind of Christ. In these next few verses, we see something of the perfections of love, the ideal of love, of what love is, and what it is not, what love always does and what it does not do. Clearly, as we read through the list, we are seeing a picture of the love of God as it was manifested in Christ Jesus when he walked upon this earth. In fact, you could replace the word ‘love’ with the name of Jesus in every one of these descriptions. In other words, you could simply say, “Jesus is patient and Jesus is kind. Jesus does not envy or boast. Jesus bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things, etc. The one word that you could not substitute in this description of love is the pronoun, “I.” You could never say with honesty: “I am patient. I am kind. I do not envy. I do not boast. I am not arrogant” etc. Where we all fall short of the glory of God, Jesus perfectly reflects the divine image of love in every word and every action.
Finally, in vv.8-13 Paul speaks of the consummation of love in heaven. In this last section, Paul points out very plainly that many of the spiritual gifts in which the Corinthians took great pride were never meant to be permanent fixtures in the life of the church. Prophecies would pass away; Paul says, and tongues would cease. Words of knowledge as well would pass away, for they would no longer be needed. Even in heaven, there will no longer be a need for teachers, for all will know God even as they are known by him. Now our knowledge is only in part, but then we will know fully. And thus the knowledge that we think we know now is filled with gaps and riddles and more questions than answers. But when the perfection comes we will see clearly. But when love is perfected in heaven it will continue to be prized and hallowed and respected by every believer, for it alone will endure forever.

Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century, son of the Puritans, preached a sermon on these last few verses in 1 Corinthians 13, entitled: “Heaven is a world of Love.” And in the sermon, he explains that heaven is a world of love because the very essence of love lives and reigns forever on his throne in heaven. He is both the cause and the source of all love here on earth, being that he is full and overflowing as an inexhaustible fountain of love. But not only is the God of love in heaven, but there are only loving people in heaven, for no sinful or wicked thing may ever enter there. There are no false professors or hypocrites in heaven, but only true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. And they all will be perfectly lovely without any spot, stain or blemish. And every soul in heaven will be perfectly loved by all the others, for love in heaven is always mutual; it is never rejected, never spurned, for our innate desire to love and our fondness for being loved will be perfected. In heaven, no one will be slighted, no one misunderstood, no one misinterpreted, and no one grieved by the failure of love, for heaven is a world of love.
But as you and I both know, the same cannot be said for God’s society here on earth, for we still live in a fallen world in the midst of fallen people. And thus, we will always see evidence of pride and selfishness in each other. We will still feel the painful ache of unrequited love. And we will see daily our own failures to love others with the love of Christ. Nevertheless, when we gather together as a Church, we are reminded of God’s abiding love for us, and we get another taste of that inexhaustible holy fountain of love in Jesus Christ, and we also see many signs of the world to come as we are in the presence of the citizens of heaven each Sunday and are just beginning to learn to love each other by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, Paul’s purpose in giving us this precious exposition on love is that we would peruse it, that we ponder upon it, that we would pursue it, that we would continually petition the Lord for it, that we would put it on like a garment and walk in it, that we would practice it daily and that we would persevere in it.
There is much evidence already of this world of love within our fellowship knowing that many have been awakened to the love of God in Christ Jesus, and thus I have confidence that the Lord will continue to direct our hearts to the love of God and will enable us to do what love commands. So, by faith, let us pursue this divine love in obedience to the greatest command of all.